The Day The Clowns Cried – The Story Of The Hartford Circus Fire

Everyone loves a day at the circus – and the 7,000 people who showed for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus on July 6, 1944 were ready for an amazing show. The town of Hartford, Connecticut, was playing host to the famous circus, and people of all ages were gathering beneath the tent to get out of the heat and enjoy the performances and human circus attractions

Sadly, the day did not go according to plan. In the official reports, the Hartford circus fire claimed a total of 167 lives, most of them children. A small fire broke out near the edge of the tent; the canvas roof was quickly engulfed in flames; and it all went down in under 10 minutes.

Investigations tried to pinpoint a cause and determine who was responsible, but it was all too late for the Hartford circus fire victims and their loved ones. They spent the next days searching through rows of bodies in a makeshift morgue, some of which were never positively identified. 

Pictures of the Hartford circus fire, as well as those of "Little Miss 1565" and "sad clown" Emmett Kelly carrying water in a futile attempt to stop the blaze, created a tragically unforgettable view of one of the worst tragedies in performing arts history – "The Day the Clowns Cried."

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  • It Was Easily One Of The Worst Disasters In Circus History

    It Was Easily One Of The Worst Disasters In Circus History
    Video: YouTube

    Circuses make their money by providing thrills to the masses, in a safe environment. Sadly, from time to time, things do go awry. Historically, there have been all kinds of horrifying incidents: lion tamers getting mauled, aerialists falling from high wires, and even train collisions. The fire at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Hartford, Connecticut, stands among the worst disasters in circus history worldwide.

  • Because Of WWII, The Victims Were Mainly Women And Children

    Because Of WWII, The Victims Were Mainly Women And Children
    Photo: Century Flashlight Photographers / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    World War II had a major effect on the home front, with lots of young men away from home in the theaters of battle and extra work to be done in factories to support the war effort, which many women – as emblematized by Rosie the Riveter – took up. The majority of the circus fire casualties were women and children, which was likely because so many adults, especially men, were away from home or working.

    In addition, some of the blame for the tragic fire was placed on a shortage of workers with the circus, as well as delays. The circus had arrived late to Hartford – some believe that the reason fire extinguishers weren't placed in their proper locations was the rushed setup of the facilities. Whatever the excuse, all of the fire safety equipment remained inaccessible in storage at the time of the tragedy.

  • The Fire Began Just After The Great Wallendas Went On Stage

    The Fire Began Just After The Great Wallendas Went On Stage
    Photo: State Library And Archives Of Florida / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Great Wallendas were, and still are, one of the most famous circus families in history, wowing audiences and setting records with their high-wire and daredevil stunts. They were performing with the Ringling Brothers that fateful day in July and were only about 20 minutes into their act when the fire started.

    They managed to get down quickly without injury, as the band leader switched songs to "Stars and Stripes Forever." That was the universal cue for circus members that there was an emergency, without alarming the audience and causing a stampede. At the same time, Fred Bradna, the ringmaster, encouraged the audience to quickly and efficiently exit the tent without rushing. That warning fell on deaf ears.

  • The Tent Was Made To Burn Like Crazy – They Just Didn't Know It

    The Tent Was Made To Burn Like Crazy – They Just Didn't Know It
    Video: YouTube

    The roof of the big top had been waterproofed by circus employees a few months before the catastrophic fire, but it's very likely that their waterproofing methods were what led to the deaths of so many of the circus goers. They used "a mixture of four parts Texaco White Gasoline and one part Standard Oil Company Yellow Paraffin Wax," which they poured onto the canvas tarps and brushed into the fabric with brooms.

    Although it seems like an extreme fire hazard to pour gasoline on canvas, back then, it was a common method of waterproofing. The top may have burned readily, but the sides were not coated with the mixture – since many people escaped through cuts in the sides of the tent, it's possible that not waterproofing the sides saved a lot of lives.

  • Causes Of Death Included More Than Just Burns

    According to ConnecticutHistory.org, when it came to official causes of death: "Most died from exposure to the fire and smoke, but a significant number were also trampled." The exposure to the fire alone would have been painful and deadly, but to make matters worse, chunks of flaming canvas were falling from above, with hot wax melting off of the waterproofed tent. The circus goers who were trampled to death were trying to escape through one of only a small handful of exits, heavily blocked by the 7,000 people trying to escape. Two of the exits were blocked by tunnels for the animals to be able to travel in and out of the big top, which caused deadly delays. 

  • Some People Managed To Survive By Being At The Bottom Of A Pile Of Bodies

    Donald Gale, a 10 year old, and seven-year-old Elliot Smith were attending the circus with family and friends when they became trapped near different exits. Elliot got stuck near the exit where the animal chutes were blocking the path, and he never lost consciousness as people fell on top of him. Donald, near another exit that had bottlenecked just before the roof collapsed, passed out as bodies fell – and kept him safe from the flames.

    Both boys were rescued by firemen who were putting out what remained of the fire and were taken to the hospital, where they shared a room for their nearly half-year recovery. They talked about their experiences with the program Disasters of the Century decades after the traumatic event.